Determining How an E-liquid is Harsh
This is probably the most common question I see in the DIY E-Liquid community. The problem with asking this question is that it doesn’t give the readers of your question (you know the people you’re asking to help you) enough information. When we’re asking why our e-liquid is harsh we have to determine what we actually mean by Harsh. To determine what type of “harshness” you are getting let’s look at the different types of elements that could be the culprit for what is being called “harshness.”
Usually the first thing that comes to mind when someone says their e-liquid mix is harsh, is throat hit. What is throat hit? If you were a smoker you understand this feeling as the irritation to the back of the throat by the act of inhaling smoke. Smoke from a cigarette or any type of burnt leaf material is naturally drying and irritating to the back of the throat and down the esophagus. Should we have this feeling from our e-liquid? It completely depends on the type of vaping experience you want.
I’ve never been a fan of throat hit. My throat is very sensitive and with my allergies and wheezing, a stronger vapor throat hit causes me to be cough and wheeze. The number one reason I have found for the source of throat hit irritation is Nicotine. Much in the same way nicotine can impart a peppery taste to an e-liquid, nicotine amounts and quality can cause excessive amounts of throat hit.
When I was vaping higher levels of nicotine I noticed throat hit a lot more. At 3mg most nicotine should not give much of throat it, if any. At 12mg range you are going to get a lot more throat hit. This doesn’t mean that the nicotine isn’t smooth, or is bad, or anything else of that nature, it just means you notice the throat hit at the higher milligram strength. I continued to lower my nicotine mg amount until the throat hit didn’t bother me anylonger. I’ve found a comfortable place at 2.5mg. But this is my preference. My husband who was vaping 18mg for a few years before I started mixing e-liquids for him, is down to 14mg now, but any lower and he gets no throat hit at all, and has increased apetite. He likes the throat hit.
Throat hit will be noticeable as the slight irritation and almost the feeling of being slapped in the back of the throat by the vapor as it is inhaled. If you’re using higher nicotine with a direct lung inhale sub-ohm atomizer set up vaping at high wattages, you will likely notice a more pronounced throat hit than if you were to use the same level of nicotine in a mouth to lung set up, like Joytech AIOs or older style tanks, or cig-a-likes. The difference in vaping style dicates how much throat hit you perceive, almost as much as how much nicotine you use.
If throat hit seems to be the issue, I would recommend decreasing the level of nicotine by 2mg at a time until the desired throat hit is achieved. For most people 2mg decrease is not noticeable enough to cause any psychological withdrawal , but it can help you determine if you need a lower nicotine amount. You may notice that you are vaping more than normal when you cut back on the amount of nicotine, but this usually levels out in a couple of weeks once you’ve found the new nicotine level that your body wants or that your equipment needs. If lowering your nicotine is not something you want to do, looking into a mouth to lung setup may be something to consider.
Using too much flavoring in a recipe can be one of the biggest reasons for what might be considered a “harsh” taste or feel in an e-liquid mixture. The best way to combat this is to know your flavors. If you haven’t tested these flavors as single flavor testers then you don’t know how they perform at different percentages. Mixing a blind test recipe from someone else (usually found online) can often result in an e-liquid that is imbalanced for your palate. If you already know how each flavor in your recipe tastes at a few different percentages, and where you normally like each of those flavors, but something is still coming out with either bitter, tart, or another off flavor, you may be able to fix it. Flavour Art AAA Magic Mask, Flavour Art MTS Wizard, TFA Smooth, Ethyl Maltol, and TFA Sweetener can be used to smooth out some rough flavors that may be causing an undesirable off flavor when they are mixed together. Too much of any of these things can cause dramatic muting of flavors, so start out at low percentages when using these types of additives. If you’ve already added sweetener, a small amount of one of the other additives may help.
Saline can also change the balance of a liquid in amounts as low as 0.05% (this is like one really small drop in a 30ml bottle). It may not add a salty note at that low of an amount, but it can have a slight smoothing effect. It can be used in conjunction with the other additives listed above without causing muting.
There are some flavorings that are just bad. There’s no fixing them, there is no adjusting or adding or using less of it, they are just flat out horrible. Yes taste is subjective, and what one person thinks is bad another may love, but there are some flavors that almost everyone agrees is utterly disgusting and will cause off notes no matter what you put it with.
For example, TFA Honey — pretty much everyone who has mixed it and vaped it agrees that there is a definite urine odor, not only in what you are vaping, but your exhaled vapor smells like it too. There are a small group of vapers who love it though, so you may still find recipes for it online.
There was one flavor that Vaping Zone carried from the Baker Flavors company in Russia called Creme Charlotte that tasted like vomit to me. A bunch of other people that left reviews on the site loved it, but no matter how low or high I mixed it, all I tasted was vomit. So even though the general consensus on the reviews seemed to like it, for me it was the most disgusting thing I think I’ve ever vaped, save for crab juice, which is also in the vomit category.
Another flavoring that I have never been able to get to work right for my tastes is citrus. Doesn’t matter brand, or type, they all have a bitter note that I simply do not like. Yet, I still keep trying new citrus flavors when they come out, hoping that one of them will be missing that molecule that is bitter.
There are just some off flavors that you can’t make better no matter what you mix with them, no matter how you mix them, that flavor is simply not for you. So maybe the “harshness” that you don’t really have a name for is actually an off flavor note that is simply never going to get better for you.
Yes, this can happen. I’ve purchased VG from Amazon that was weird smelling in the bottle and everything I mixed with it was weird. There was a plastic, chemical note that was not as a result of the flavoring, but of the VG that I was using. Now I haven’t had this issue with PG, though most of what I mix for myself has always been higher VG juice, but I do use a little bit of PG in my all day vapes.
We all know PG adds throat hit, so if you’re mixing 50/50 or higher PG juice you may be getting too much throat hit from the PG that you are are using. This can be remedied by changing your ratios to a slightly higher VG version, even 40pg/60vg can help tone down PG throat hit.
IF you suspect your VG and it has a distinct off smell in the bottle, not to be confused with the natural smell that VG does have, try vaping just straight VG no flavors, no PG, no nicotine. This can tell you if your VG is the culprit of your harshness or off flavors in your mix.
I have been using Bulk Apothecary for years and never had any issues with their PG and VG. I have also recently tried New Directions Aromatics Organic Palm VG. I have been happy with Bulk Apothecary and only tried out the New Directions organic version just to test it. I would say it’s essentially performed the same as Bulk Apothecary’s VG has, it tastes the same, and it equally as smooth to vape, yet ND’s VG is almost 3 times the cost of BA’s VG, and without any noticeable difference, so I’ll be sticking with Bulk Apothecary and Essential’s Depot glycerine, as they perform the same at significantly less money.
If you have allergies, or throat sensitivities to chemicals or other things in the air — causing wheezing, dry coughs, or soreness; then it is possible that you could have issues with certain flavor molecules. I have both, environmental allergies, and reactive airways due to allergen exposures or dry cold air. I have found several flavorings, usually ones that are creamy, vanillas, chocolates, and even a few fruits that cause me to wheeze. I do not have this issue with any of the Flavour Art flavoring line, however I have come across flavors from Capellas (V1 versions mostly), TFA, INW, and Real Flavors. I haven’t tried enough of Flavorah’s to know if I have any problems with theirs, but so far I have not had an issue with their flavorings.
So if you are thinking it is throat hit type of harshness, it could be a sensitivity to certain flavorings. The only way to find out which ones are doing it in a recipe with multiple brands and flavors, would be try to all the flavors in the recipe as single flavor testers. This is one of the reasons I do single flavor testers of all flavors when I get them in.
There is no way to fix sensitivity, you simply must not use those flavorings that cause the problem. It is a reaction to one or more molecules. So if you have allergies or sensitivities, this may be the source of your harshness.
This was something that vapers years ago were talking about, buying juice and putting it in cabinet or in a box or a drawer to let it steep for anywhere from a few weeks to several months — and that was commercial juice! Many juice makers were mixing fresh for orders at that time too, so often it was much more like how it is now mixing our own.
Sure there are some flavors that work as shake and vapes, and some people I am certain have lungs and thoats of steel, but not all of us can take the harshness and flavors of freshly mixed liquids. There are very few recipes I truly consider shake and vape, because there are very few flavors that work well immediately mixed into the VG base. Most flavors need time to unwind in the base and cure. Before flavors have mixed into the blend (not just visually through vigorous shaking but on a molecular level) and had a chance to interact with the other flavors present, they simply don’t taste the way they will when they have fully developed.
Patience is a virtue, not something we are born with, it’s something we learn to have. Sometimes we just have to have some patience with our e-liquids. A recipe that seems harsh, or weird right off the bat could end up delicious by month 3. Two weeks is often the recommended minimum steeping point. Sometimes those flavors won’t change dramatically after two weeks, but sometimes they continue to smooth out, continue to blend, and continue to mellow. You have to give recipes time before you throw them in the trash. If after 6 months the flavor hasn’t improved, is still harsh, and is just not good, then yes, junk the recipe, usually there is no hope for any improvement beyond that point.
For folks who say steeping is pointless, that recipes should be amazing right away or else the recipe is crap, they are short changing not only themselves, but any other mixers who might listen to them. While quick steeping methods can help with some recipes to be better sooner, there really is no replacement for time that the home mixer will have access to. Sure commercial companies use high shear mixers, ultrasonic homogenizers, and application of specific heat to speed steep juices to a consistent basis so that every bottle you get tastes the same and is more shelf stable, these are extremely expensive methods for an at home mixer to pursue.
Another thing to consider when mixing large batches, the larger your volume of liquid the longer it takes for that entire bottle to steep. If you mix in liter sizes, you might want to consider taking some of that mix out after a week of steeping and putting it into a smaller bottle to steep faster for use. What might take 2 weeks in a 60ml size bottle, might take 2 months or 3 months to steep in a liter sized bottle. Because there is more base, more flavor, and more volume for the liquid occupy, it takes longer for entropy to increase to the point that the steeping process has finished. Once entropy has reached equilibrium state the juice has steeped. It takes time for that to happen at room temp as the molecules move around, twist, unwind, rotate and vibrate.
So have patience with your mixes grasshopper. Give them the time they need to achieve their final state before you decide your recipe has not performed the way you wanted.